Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos
examined by and © Mark Alexander
Kirby Collector #24
Enter The Howling Commandos
"There was reality in the stories because of my own war experiences.
Sgt. Fury had the essence of military life in it."—Jack Kirby
The story goes like this: One day in late 1962 Stan Lee was trying to convince
his skeptical uncle (publisher Martin Goodman) that Marvel's new-found success
was due to the fact that he and Jack Kirby had developed a new comic-style which
Lee claimed would work in any genre. To prove his point, Stan bet that they
could make a hit even with an outdated war-theme and a "horrible title."
The result was Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, a Kirbyesque trek through
the battlefields of World War II that was dubbed "The War Mag for People
Who Hate War Mags."
Jack Kirby was the obvious choice to illustrate the series. Having tackled
combat themes before (see Boy Commandos, Foxhole, Warfront, and Battle), he
was able to handle the job with ease and enthusiasm. The commandos that Jack
created for Sgt. Fury were colorful characters, startling for their brazen acknowledgement
of ethnicity, whose diverse backgrounds formed a microcosm of America itself.
Among their ranks were: Timothy "Dum-Dum" Dugan, a huge, derby-domed
Irish-American; Isadore "Izzy" Cohen, a master-mechanic from Brooklyn
and the first-ever Jewish comics hero; Dino Manelli, a handsome Italian-American
who was also a Hollywood star back in the states (clearly based on Dean Martin);
"Rebel" Ralston, an ex-jockey from Kentucky with a pronounced southern
accent; "Junior" Juniper, the Ivy Leaguer and eager beaver of the
group; and Gabriel Jones, a trumpet-playing jazzman who was Jack and Stan's
first (pre-Panther) Black hero. At a time when civil rights was a hotly-contested
issue, Kirby and Lee (without concern for sales in the South) showed exactly
where they stood on segregation by including a Black soldier in Fury's squad.
They were, of course, taking artistic license with this concept; having both
served during World War II they knew that the US Army had been segregated at
the time. (Fury's anachronistically-integrated squad was not an entirely unique
concept; DC's Sgt. Rock, which originated in 1959, featured a Black soldier
named Jackie Johnson.) In any event, Gabe's inclusion in the Howlers was a bold
move, and when Jones appeared colored pink in the first issue, Lee was obliged
to send the color separation company a detailed memo to make it clear that Gabe
Jones was a Black man.
This motley melange of misfits whose ferocious battle cry of "WAH-HOO!!"
earned them the title "Howling Commandos" was led by Nicholas Joseph
Fury, a cigar-chomping, tough-talking Sergeant whose trademarks were a five-o'clock
shadow and a perpetually-ripped shirt. A product of the Great Depression, Fury
was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan known as Hell's Kitchen by his
widowed mother, his father (World War I pilot Jack Fury) having died in combat.
Fury was a classic Dead-End Kid. He frequented pool halls, got into scrapes,
and worked as infrequently as possible. His life turned around when he joined
the parish of Chaplain Lewis Hargrove. Fury became best friends with Hargrove's
younger brother who was subsequently killed at Pearl Harbor. To avenge his friend's
death at the hands of the Axis powers, Fury enlisted in 1941, endured basic
training at Fort Dix, and served as a Sergeant in the European Theater of Operations
leading the Howlers.
The supporting characters in SFAHHC include: Captain "Happy Sam"
Sawyer, a bellowing, no-nonsense C.O.; Pam Hawley, Fury's love interest; Baron
Strucker, Nick's nefarious Nazi-nemesis; and Sgt. "Bull" McGiveney,
Fury's loud-mouthed rival whose squad would tangle with the Howlers (and always
lose) at the drop of a hat. In a mere eight issues, Jack and Stan had established
a cast potent enough to keep the book rolling for almost two decades.
All the bad guys in SFAHHC were (what else?) Nazis; all were named Hans, Fritz,
or Otto, and all were ruthless, cold-blooded Teutonic killers. This one-dimensional
stereotyping (by Lee) was pointedly at odds with the rich characterization in
the rest of the book. Amazingly, Flo Steinberg (Marvel's Gal Friday) recalls
that one reader was so incensed by the magazine's anti-Nazi slant that he wrote
a letter threatening to kill the entire Bullpen. The FBI was called in, but
nothing came of the scare. Clearly, Marvel's progressive attitude didn't delight
As for the plots, it was mostly Fury leading his men on one impossible raid
after another (the title of SF #9, "Mission: Capture Hitler" says
it all). Sometimes the book seemed like a Marvel super-hero comic, sometimes
like a war movie, and sometimes like Kirby's own up-close and personal war experiences.
Whatever the mood, the Kirby-Lee issues, particularly #4-7 and 13, were generally
outstanding, even by today's standards. Quite an accomplishment, considering
Jack's workload at the time.
Eight Two-Fisted War Stories (Sgt. Fury #1-7 & #13)
Lee and Kirby sought to infuse their new war comic with the unique characterization
(Stan's) and the sheer kinetic energy (Jack's) which had worked so well in the
Fantastic Four. As a result, the early issues of SFAHHC (inked by Dick Ayers)
read like Marvel super-hero stories, a premise which would be abandoned by the
fourth issue. Realism went out the window in scenes where a parachuting Dum-Dum
blasts a Nazi plane out of the sky with a grenade (SF #1, May 1963) and holds
off an entire enemy squad by hurling rocks at them (SF #2, July 1963). Worth
noting, though, are the harrowing concentration camp scenes in the second issue.
Jack and Stan, both Jewish, weren't about to shy away from the subject of genocide.
In one chilling panel Kirby depicts emaciated P.O.W.s, and in another we see
what is clearly a gas chamber. The next issue, "Midnight At Massacre Mountain"(SF
#3, Sept. 1963), is notable for a cameo appearance by major Reed Richards of
the O.S.S.. From this point on, the writing would take a quantum leap.
With "Lord Ha-Ha's Last Laugh" (SF #4, Nov. 1963) the series really
takes off. The first surprise is that George Roussos (as "Bell") takes
over on inks, and his admittedly rushed delineation looks (in my opinion) just
right for this magazine, whereas it generally failed in Kirby's super-hero books.
In this issue, Fury meets Lady Pamela Hawley, a young Red Cross volunteer born
to English nobility and their fourteen-issue romance begins. The chemistry between
these two was by far the most interesting that Lee had developed to date. Stan's
usual spin on romance (e.g. Blake/Foster, Summers/Grey, and Murdock/Page) had
both protagonists secretly longing for each other while neither dared to tell
the other. It got to be a drag very quickly. By contrast, Fury and Hawley were
up front about their feelings for each other, and the fact that their personalities
were totally opposite (he, rough and from the wrong side of the tracks; she,
sophisticated and high-born) gave their coupling a unique slant. With Pam's
death (SF #18, May 1965), Fury acquired the same type of scarred psyche that
Steve (Captain America) Rogers had, both having lost a dear friend to the war.
Kirby drew the cover and this splash page (and oddly enough, also the last
page) for Sgt. Fury #18. The only other instances where this rarity occurred
were in Avengers #14 and X-Men #17. All characters ™ and © Marvel Entertainment,
Another major event takes place at the end of Sgt. Fury #4. "Junior"
Juniper, the Howler with the least potential in terms of character development,
became the first-ever Marvel Universe hero to be killed. Today that's no big
deal but in 1963, comics heroes simply didn't die; not permanently, anyway.
Suddenly, with the death of "Junior" Juniper, the series acquired
some real cachet. It now played like a true-life war drama where people got
killed and never came back. You wondered who would be next. (Unfortunately,
in 1965 Stan wrote a SFAHHC story set in the Korean War which ended the suspense.
Obviously, no more Howlers would die in World War II.)
In between Sgt. Fury #4 and 5, a modern-day Nick Fury appeared in the pages
of Marvel's flagship magazine (Fantastic Four #21, Dec. 1963). Fury is now a
Colonel in the C.I.A. (he was promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant in
Korea, then after spying for France in Vietnam during the 1950s, he was booted
up to Colonel). In this issue he teams up with the FF to defeat a villain called
The Hate Monger who (implausibly) turns out to be Adolf Hitler. The story doesn't
amount to much; it was mainly a stepping-stone that the writers used to move
Fury into a surprising new context (more on this later). The next appearance
of the modern-day Fury would show him with a new look. During World War II,
a grenade shattered the bones around his left eye, damaging the optic nerve.
This would cause him to gradually lose most of the vision in that eye, requiring
Fury to don an eyepatch sometime after this story took place.
Every great hero needs an equally great villain, and in "At The Mercy
Of Baron Strucker" (SF #5, Jan. 1964) Fury found his. Baron Wolfgang Von
Strucker, the ultimate Nazi, was to Fury what Doom was to the FF and what Magneto
was to the X-Men; an arch-villain so magnificently evil that reader demand would
dictate his return time and again. A Prussian aristocrat with a monocle, a cigarette
holder and a dueling scar, Strucker was Fury's natural adversary. He regarded
the American Sergeant as an inferior savage from the lower classes, and in later
issues Strucker would lead a six-man "blitzkrieg squad" who were Nazi
counterparts to Fury's men. (Several years later during his brilliant stint
on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jim Steranko found a way to rekindle this
decades-old rivalry. It was both a stroke of genius and obvious on Steranko's
part to have the head of Hydra unmask himself as Baron Strucker.)
The next issue, "The Fangs Of The Desert Fox" (SF #6, Mar. 1964),
was a morality tale. Dino Manelli, injured in a drill, is replaced by racist/bigot
George Stone-well. When Stonewell joins the Howlers on a raid against Nazi Field-Marshall
Erwin Rommel, the dreaded "Desert Fox," he blows the mission because
he won't cooperate with Izzy (a Jew) and is shot by the Germans. Risking his
own life, Izzy carries the wounded Stonewell to safety, and when a life-saving
blood transfusion is needed, only Gabe has Stonewell's blood type. Stonewell
awakens, devastated to learn that he owes his life to a Black man and a Jew.
Stories like these are what made the early Marvel comics so timely and so impossibly
In "The Court Martial of Sgt. Fury" (SF #7, May 1964) we find Fury,
who is suffering from amnesia, facing a court martial and possibly a firing
squad for reasons he can't recall. A truly different type of war story emerges
here. The only action is in the courtroom, and a lesser artist couldn't possibly
have pulled it off, but years of doing romance comics had taught Kirby how to
draw a dramatic, compelling story even when no action was involved. That knowledge
served him well in this issue.
To ensure that Fury's thirteenth issue wouldn't be unlucky, Kirby and Lee reunited
for "Fighting Side By Side With Captain America And Bucky" (Dec. 1964).
It was to be Jack and Stan's last hurrah in the pages of Sgt. Fury. Although
Dick Ayers had penciled issues #8-12, Lee wasn't about to let anyone but Cap's
creator handle the Silver Age debut of Bucky Barnes. The magnificent Kirby/Stone
cover immediately conveys that this issue is fundamentally a Captain America
thriller with the Howlers as guest-stars in their own magazine. Despite this,
the sparks really fly and the seeds of a long-term Cap/Fury/S.H.I.E.L.D. alliance
were sown in this superb issue (inked by Dick Ayers).
Thus ended Jack and Stan's tenure on "The War Mag For People Who Hate
War Mags." Jack pulled out, Ayers took his place, and Lee soon turned the
writing chores over to Roy (The Boy) Thomas. Very soon SFAHHC became more and
more like Sgt. Rock; in other words, just another war mag for people who love
Was Nick Fury Jack Kirby?
The amount of time that Kirby reportedly spent telling (and re-telling) war
stories indicates what an indelible impression World War II must have had on
him. Did he feel so close to his subject matter in this series that he (consciously
or not) created the main character in his own image? Was Nick Fury Jack Kirby?
Both men's names and facial features are strikingly similar, and they both
loved cigars. In SF #1, Lee describes Fury as being six-foot two-inches tall,
but if one looks at the drawings, Fury appears to be (like Jack) a stocky man
of only average height. On the other hand, it's important to note that ex-Army
Sergeant Stan Lee had also served during World War II. He had the same rank
as Fury, and he too loved cigars. Stan was definitely closer to 6'2" than
Jack, and some of Lee's catch-phrases like "Face Front!" and "Hang
Loose!" (the types of which Fury bellowed at his men) were admittedly inspired
by his own Army service. In the final analysis, both writer and artist undoubtedly
tried to infuse some of themselves into Sgt. Fury, and as a result, he came
out as a heroic amalgamation of both men.
The Twilight of the Howling Commandos
"I was intrigued by the idea of having two magazines featuring Nick Fury,
one dealing with his exploits during World War II and the other bringing him
up to the present—but doing what?"—Stan Lee
The answer that Stan sought came from television, where The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
had premiered the previous Fall. And so it came to pass that Sgt. Fury traded
in his ripped shirts for an eyepatch and became Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.,
Marvel's answer to James Bond (Strange Tales #135, Aug. 1965). S.H.I.E.L.D.,
an international espionage group, was short for Supreme Headquarters International
Espionage Law-Enforcement Division. Fury was both its director and powerhouse
operative. (For Kirby art, see issues #135 and #141-143.) In June 1968, Nick
Fury, AOS got his own book, and for a short time he enjoyed the status of starring
in two Marvel publications simultaneously. NFAOS eventually went into reprint,
and folded after only 18 issues; in Sept. 1989 however, the series made a comeback.
Fury's career has had its ups and downs; he's been subjected to an "Infinity
Formula" to retard his aging, and in 1995 he was supposedly shot dead by
the Punisher. Still, it's a safe bet that as long as there's a Marvel Universe,
Nick Fury will exist in it somewhere.
The World War II-era Howlers, however, are long gone. After an 18-year run,
SFAHHC was finally laid to rest (SF #167, Dec. 1981). "Junior" Juniper
was replaced by Percy Pinkerton, a British soldier who added even more ethnic
diversity to the squad (two other post-Kirby Howlers, Tim Cadwallader and Eric
Koenig, came later). Reb, Dino, and Izzy lived at least until the late 1960s;
we know this because they served in Vietnam (SF Annual #3, Aug. 1967). Dum-Dum
and Gabe both became high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, faithfully serving under
Fury as they'd always done. Pam died in issue #18, and the loud-mouthed "Bull"
McGiveney ended up being shot to death by his own men (okay, so I'm guessing).
It seems doubtful that we'll ever see a revival of Kirby's Howling Commandos.
War comics just aren't as popular as they once were, and without trying to editorialize,
maybe that's a good sign. Still, as long as modern-day World War II stories
like Saving Private Ryan continue to capture the imaginations of millions (and
as long as little boys continue to play "Army"), the Howling Commandos
will live on. WAH-HOO!!
(The author would like to thank Les Daniels, Gerard Jones, Will Jacobs, David
Penalosa, Ron Goulart, Harry Abrams, Jeff Rovin, and Paul Sassienie, without
whom this article wouldn't have been possible.)
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